Introduction to Field Recording Part 5- Photographic Surveys and Sketch Plans

Time to take some photographs in what will be the final guide!

Update From Me

As always, it’s been a busy few months. I’ve been able to get out in the field with my amazing colleagues at CITiZAN for the first time in ages and I was also interviewed by an old friend.

I’ve also continued to work with Peter Hibbs to develop resources and guidance for our UK Second World War Heritage group. We’re currently building a Site Type Guide for wartime sites. This guide provides accurate information about wartime site types, as well as archaeological recording methodologies to ensure surviving sites are recorded to recognised standards.

Last April (2021) I was interviewed by my good friend Marc from Archaeosoup for the channel’s ‘Meet The Archaeologist’ series. This was quite the honour, given the very well known, and well respected, archaeologists that have been interviewed before me. You can watch the interview here-

As I mentioned above, this will be the final edition of this guide. It’s hard to believe I started this all the way back at the end of 2016. I’ve learned a lot writing this guide, mainly that I’m a very slow writer. Anyway, that’s enough from me. Onto the guide!

Disclaimer Time

Stop. Disclaimer time!

You can find additional Good Practice Guidelines over on the UK Second World War Heritage website. I recommend having a read through these.

Here’s the basics for reference. Wartime structures are the property of the landowner. Removing items from sites, trespass, unauthorised or illegal excavation and vegetation clearance all have a negative impact on surviving wartime sites and can make them vulnerable to further misuse. Also, these actions may act as justification for a landowner to demolish surviving structures that aren’t protected. 

“There were no signs saying Private Property” is not an excuse to trespass.

If you do any of the above, you are not ‘preserving’ or ‘recording’ Second World War sites and are actively contributing the negative issues that plague many surviving wartime sites.

Make contact with the landowner and work with them to highlight the importance of what they own.

Finally, I am not responsible if you get into trouble and I am not responsible for any other issues that arise as a result of using this guide.

Introduction

Archaeological photography is very different to artistic photography. You’ll also soon see the difference between taking photos of concrete for Facebook, and conducting a proper survey to basic archaeological standards to actually record your site.

A photographic survey is a key part of any archaeological survey. The aim of this is to create a visual record of what you are recording; highlighting form, condition and landscape context at time of survey. Taking the photographs is just one part of an archaeological photographic survey. You will have to set up your shots, decide what order you want to take your photographs in and (most importantly) keep a record of the photographs you are taking for archive purposes.

An important thing to point out before we start is that Facebook, Flickr, Youtube and online forums are not digital archives and have no responsibility to preserve digital images or information. If these sites cease to exist, or the account that posted the information is deleted, all that information is lost. This is why posting images to social media platforms and websites is not an effective way to document or record wartime sites and structures in the long term. That, and these sites have no influence over the planning process or local heritage policy. Your local Historic Environment Record (HER), however is responsible for curating an archive of digital images and they have a responsibility to ensure that data within their possession is maintained to prevent digital decay; ensuring information, both physical and digital, is preserved for future generations.

Why undertake a photographic survey?

The main aims of a photographic survey are to highlight your site’s location, level of preservation at time of survey, and site type; as well as to create a visual record of significant features and their locations in relation to the structure you are recording. Photographs also help to compliment your written record to further illustrate what you have found and recorded. Photographs may also be used by heritage professionals, such as HER officers, to determine the condition of your site and its local relevance. These don’t need to be super fancy artistic photos and no prior experience is necessary to undertake a photographic survey, simply follow the steps in this guide. 

What you will need

Let’s have a Blue Peter moment!

To undertake a photographic survey, you will need:

  • A camera, smartphone or tablet.
  • A recording form or notebook
  • A compass
  • Blutac or other easy to remove adhesive substance
  • A tripod, as long as you can safely carry it (Thanks Mike!)
  • Washing up liquid bottle (optional)

Important things to remember while doing a photographic survey

  • Try to avoid shadows in the image, especially your own. It is often best to photograph a site when it is overcast to avoid both shadows and raking light.
  • Ensure that no people are in the way, obscuring what you are photographing. If working with someone, make them aware when you are taking an image.
  • Remove any kit (bags, coats etc.) from the photograph before conducting your photographic survey.
  • Best practice is to take two photographs at a time and check that they are okay after they have been. This way you’ll have at least one photograph if anything goes wrong and won’t be disappointed to find out your photos haven’t been taken properly when you check them after the survey.
  • Make sure the image is focussed. Very basic but best to check that your images are properly focussed once they are taken.
  • Make sure what you are photographing is centred in the image. Not always possible inside a confined space but do your best.
  • Try to avoid grazing light and bloom. You don’t want the sun shining directly into the lens of the camera when you take a photo as it can obscure what you’re photographing.
  • Don’t remove/cut vegetation to clear up the shot. You are documenting the condition of the structure at the time of survey, so it’s important to highlight the impact vegetation growth is having on the structure and its condition. Also, depending on the area you are surveying, unauthorised vegetation clearance or damage to flora and fauna may also be illegal without prior consultation and consent from the landowner and relevant authorities. See the UK Second World War Heritage Good Practice Guidelines for further advice- https://ukswwh.wordpress.com/good-practice-guideline
  • Take as many images as you think you need but don’t take too many. There’s nothing worse than finding that you haven’t taken images of everything that you need to record. However, you need to strike a balance between too many photos and not enough. Be objective and stay focussed. Taking hundreds of photographs of a single structure is mostly pointless, especially when you could have recorded the structure visually in a dozen photos. As we’ll see later, taking more photos also increases your workload in terms of recording the images. Creating a record of your photographs is one of the most important parts of the photographic survey.

There’s also this handy video which outlines what to remember, courtesy of the Council for British Archaeology and Archaeosoup

Setting up your camera

Just as a quick heads-up, there are a couple of things you’ll need to do to make sure your camera is ready to take photographs.

  • Remove the lens cap. It’s always best to check, instead of looking silly!
  • Clean the lens. You really don’t want to find out there’s a huge fingerprint in all your images when you get home.
  • Ensure the camera is set to the highest resolution setting. Clear, high resolution images are far better than blurry, low resolution images. You can also compress high resolution images for use in presentations etc.
  • Check that you have enough memory on the camera to take photographs. If possible, have a spare SD card on hand.
  • Turn the date stamp off.
  • If possible, set the image format to .tiff. However, you will need to confirm which file formats are preferred by the Historic Environment Record that you will be providing your images to. Generally, for archiving purposes, .tiff is the preferred format. However, individual HERs may have different requirements. If possible, you should set the camera to take images in .tiff format, or at the very least ensure the images are converted before sending to the HER.

The Routine

A photographic survey will involve a pretty basic routine of taking a photograph and creating a photographic record of the photographs you’ve taken.

You should have an idea of what you want to photograph having made your observations. If not, have a quick look through the notes you made for the site description and pick out the important features you mention. 

Outlined below is a simple routine to follow to help you get started. However, over time you will develop your own process and method for undertaking a photographic survey. 

Overall, you should aim to do the following for each photograph:

1- Set up the area or feature to be photographed by removing any equipment and placing a suitable scale

2- Identify a suitable location from where you can take the photograph

3- Take photographs with scale

4- Take any additional photographs without scale as required

5- Complete the photographic record for the photographs taken (More on this shortly)

And that’s pretty much it. You repeat the above process for each feature you need to photograph.

What to photograph: An outline

Generally you should aim to take photographs of the following:

1- Location shots

2- Shots of each elevation

3- Context and landscape shots

4- Interior shots, each face if possible

5- Features of interest

Starting Off- Location shots

A CAMERAMAN OF THE R.A.F. FILM PRODUCTION UNIT Copyright: © IWM (CH 13067). Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205452571

You’ve finished recording the condition of the pillbox you are recording and are now ready to do the last step of the recording process. You have a quick check through your site description to see what needs to be photographed.

Before taking your photographs, you make sure that you have moved your backpack from the top of the pillbox and make your friend aware that you’re about to start photographing the pillbox. You don’t want them photobombing your photos! You check the camera one last time; making sure the date stamp is turned off, lens cap removed and that the camera is set to take photographs in .tiff format.

You take one final look around the exterior of the pillbox, to make sure that you haven’t left anything in shot. You are now ready to take the first photograph of your photographic survey.

Taking the opportunity to step back from the pillbox you have been surveying for a good couple of hours now, you place yourself far enough away from the pillbox to get a good shot of the structure in its immediate locality, showing its general location and overall condition. Ensuring that the camera is focussed and that there are no shadows, you take one photograph followed quickly by a second. Once you’ve taken the photographs, you give them a quick check to make sure the image is focussed and not obscured by a misplaced thumb or finger. You are very happy with the two images you have taken.

A good place to start is by taking a general location shot of the structure you are recording. This should be an image which highlights your site’s location in the landscape and shows as much of the exterior as possible. I find it best to take these photos without scale as they usually come in useful for presentations, blogs or publications. As these images are often taken at an angle, it often isn’t practical to place a scale properly anyway. Photo scales can be placed in later images.

Again, it needs to be stressed that you are demonstrating the site or structure in its current state. It is okay if what you are recording is completely obscured by vegetation. It is not your responsibility to cut the vegetation to clear the structure or dig anything up.

Here’s the ‘Location Shot’ taken-

You can see the pillbox is centred in the image, the image is focussed, and there’s no heavy shadows or grazing light.

Recording Your Photographs

Right, here’s the really important bit. You need to keep a record of the photographs you are taking. You will find a photographic record sheet on the third page of the Recording Form, but a notebook can also be used.

Taking hundreds of random photographs is completely pointless: this isn’t a competition of how many photographs you can take of one pillbox. It is much easier to be focussed and work methodically. Taking hundreds of photos is made even more pointless if you aren’t keeping a written record of what your photographs show and can’t even describe what the photographs show at a later date! This record is central to helping someone who hasn’t visited the site, such as a HER officer, understand what the site looks like and where key features are located.

The photographic record consists of:

  • The number of your image in the sequence
  • The filename
  • A caption/description of what the image shows

And that’s all you need!

The first two requirements are pretty self-explanatory.

First, you number each photo taken, or if you really wanted to you could apply a site-specific reference that links to the site reference of the structure, but numbering works just as well for now.

Next, you record the filename of the image taken, usually something like DSC00112

A quick explanation of why we do this. Numbering your photographs is a simple way of keeping track how many images you’ve taken and in what order they were taken. It also means that you can trace the image in the sequence if you don’t record the filename.

Recording the filename, again, helps you to track the image you’ve taken and match up the caption you have written. Recording both these pieces of information is good practice as it ensures that if anything goes wrong, or you lose track of the order you’ve taken images, you’ll still be able to work out which caption/description applies to each image.

It’s all about setting up a self-checking system that helps you avoid losing track of images in the future.

Right, the really important bit; the description. 

This should be no more than one or two sentences that describe the image you have taken. The most basic caption should describe what the image shows, the direction the photograph was taken and, if photo scales have been used, the size of the scales, and which parts of the structure you’re photographing are visible.

For the location shot above, I’ve gone with-

General location and form of pillbox at time of survey. Image facing North-East, showing South-West and North-West facing elevations, and entrance.

And there you go, that’s a simple description. You can see that the content of the photo is described, the direction the image was taken and what parts of the pillbox are visible. This should tell someone who hasn’t visited the site what the image shows, and give them a general idea of what features can be seen in the image.I’ll show you some more descriptions as we work through the photographic survey.

The character in the story also took a second image from the opposite direction for use at a later date.

Caption: General location and form of pillbox at time of survey. Image facing North, showing South and South-East facing elevations.

Elevations

Once you have your location shots, it’s time to start the photographic survey proper.
The next step is to photograph each face of the pillbox. These faces are often referred to as ‘elevations’. Photographing each face helps to create an in-depth, 360 degree record of the pillbox (in this case) which can be used to further highlight important features.

It’s worth pointing out here that, as was the case with this pillbox, it isn’t always possible to photograph every side. Often, the landscape will be too restrictive or dangerous to take a decent elevation shot. Again, don’t try and hack your way through vegetation to get these shots.

When taking these photographs, it is very important that you record which direction you are facing when the photograph is taken, as we’ll see in a bit.

The only thing to really remember is to make sure the face of the pillbox is correctly centred in the viewfinder before taking the photograph. Ideally, you want to aim for the elevation to be centred in the image and face on when you take it.

You’ve got your location shots so it’s time to take your elevation photographs.

You double check that there aren’t any bits of kit left on the pillbox or in the way of what you want to photograph. Your friend is busy wandering around, so you let them know again that you’ll be taking photographs and that you want them to stay out of shot.

You start by photographing the elevation closest to you, which is the entrance. There’s no better place to start! 

You find a convenient place from where you can take your photograph. Looking at the elevation you are going to photograph, you take a look through the viewfinder of the camera, checking that the elevation can fit in the centre of the image. When ready, you take two photographs.

You make a quick note of the image number and file name in the photograph recording form.

You have your initial images without scale. Now it’s time to take two further images with an appropriate photo scale. You place one of the two 1m ranging poles vertically to the left of the elevation you have photographed. You then move to where you took your first elevation shots, having left your camera bag at the location so you can quickly find it again, and look through the viewfinder of your camera, checking once again that you can get the whole elevation in shot one more. You also check at the same time that the ranging pole is properly vertical, and also face on to you and the camera. You take two further photographs. With your first elevation photographs taken, you complete the rest of the photographic survey form. You write a brief description which describes which way the image faces and the direction the elevation faces, using your compass to quickly check the direction. You also make a note of the size of the scales used in your photo description.

Okay, let’s start by having a look at the photos. You’ll notice that a total of four photographs were taken. Remember, we take more than one photo each time just in case something goes wrong.

The first image was taken without scale and the second pair of images were taken with scale. This leaves you with one pair of scaled shots you can use for publications or presentations and a second set of images with scale that you can use for reports. You can choose to start by placing scales but it’s often easier to place them in your second shot as they are pretty much in place for the second elevation you will photograph. You only have to really move the horizontal scale for the shot to be set up.

Placing scales

Caption: Surviving extent of vegetation camouflage applied to roof of pillbox. Image taken facing North-East, showing entrance and South-West and South facing elevations. 1m scale.

Okay, let’s look at placing photographic scales. Again, this is pretty straightforward. You may have seen these appear in some photographs posted online. Quite often it looks like they’ve been placed for decoration or to make it look like the person taking the photograph knows what they’re doing and nothing else!

Photographic scales, in this case known as ranging poles, are used to give a sense of scale to your image. Without them it can be really difficult to tell how big something is. Also, a well taken image with scales can be used to take approximate measurements of the features within the image. A single vertical ranging pole is usually enough, but if you wish you can place a second horizontal scale across the roof of the pillbox.

There are a couple of simple rules to remember when placing your photo scales. Firstly, make sure the scales are placed so that they don’t obscure what you’re photographing. Ideally, you want to make sure they are placed around the edge of the feature to be photographed. 

Second, make sure the scales are as vertical and horizontal as possible. You will often find that you go to take the image and realise that one of the scales isn’t quite horizontal or vertical. It takes a surprising amount of practice to get this right! 

Thirdly, make sure the scales themselves aren’t obscured. This isn’t so much of a problem if one section of the scale is visible but does become problematic if most of the scale is obscured. If your scale isn’t visible, try moving it to somewhere where it isn’t obscured and doesn’t break the previous two rules.

Right, next let’s look at the images of the entrance that were taken.

Image 1:

Description:

Image facing North-East showing South-West facing entrance.

Image 2:

Description:

Image facing North-East showing South-West facing entrance with 1m scale. Note thickness of the roof and wall.

Further Elevations

You repeat the above process of taking your photographs, placing scale and filling in the photo recording form for the other elevations.

You will find the rest of the elevation photographs in the example site record at the end of this guide. Note how vegetation and proximity to the cliff edge limited the options for photographs of the Northern-most elevations. This is why it’s often best to undertake field surveys in Winter, when vegetation is at a minimum.

Caption: South-East facing elevation showing rifle loopholes and vegetation growth. Image taken facing North.

During this survey, it wasn’t possible to get a face on elevation shot of the South-East facing elevation, so compromises during the survey had to be made. It wasn’t possible to take an image from further away due to the height of the vegetation, so I settled on taking an image at an oblique angle. A follow up survey will have to be conducted in the Winter.

Caption: North-West facing elevation of entrance showing single rifle loophole and chamfered corner with 1m scale.

You’ll notice with this image that it was taken while I was standing and is at an oblique angle. I made a mistake with this one; It would have been better if I crouched while taking this image to ensure the elevation is face on in the viewfinder.

Features of Interest

Features of interest are any significant features you have identified and mentioned in your site description that you think need photographing. These can be anything from detailed photographs of embrasures, through to examples of period graffiti or evidence of the construction techniques used.

In our case, we found some wartime graffiti on the roof of this pillbox which would benefit from being included in the photographic survey.

Taking such images is very similar to what we’ve already seen. Only this time, it is best to use an appropriately sized scale. You don’t want to be using a 1m ranging pole to photographs a feature that is only a few centimetres across.

Placing a 15cm or 30cm ruler will often provide an adequate scale for such features. Simply follow the rules for lacing a ranging pole and you won’t go too far wrong. If you’re photographing a feature on a vertical wall, it can be useful to attach your photo scale using blu tack. This will leave you with both hands free to take the image.

It’s worth remembering that if you’re taking a close up image, that the flash can sometimes obscure what you are photographing. This is particularly true if recording pencil graffiti on a whitewashed surface.

Let’s look at the photographs our protagonist took of their features of interest.

Image:

Description:
Detail of graffiti on Northern extent of pillbox roof with 30cm photo scale.

Image:

Description:

In-situ screw picket in cliff face to the North of the pillbox at grid TA 14764 75576.

It clearly wasn’t safe to place a scale in this image.

Interior shots

Interior shots can be tricky, especially within the tight confines of a pillbox.

As with when you’re undertaking the initial walk around of the structure you are recording, don’t enter spaces which you can’t see within. Also, if the door is sealed don’t try and force your way in. Breaking and entering is illegal and you may also find the pillbox is used as a bat roost. Disturbing one is a criminal offence.

If possible, aim to photograph each internal elevation as before. However, given the cramped confines of most pillboxes, a simple interior shot with additional shots of important details should suffice.

If space allows, use of a photographic scale is recommended.

At the time of survey, the interior of the pillbox was partially flooded with stagnant water. You manage to take some images of the pillbox’s interior from a dry spot in the pillbox’s entrance and are able to take a detailed shot of one of the LMG loopholes and examples of the rifle loopholes.

Description:

Interior facing South, showing internal South and South-West facing LMG embrasures. Note bar below loophole that once held a shelf.

Again, you’ll see the other interior shots within the finished example site record.

Context Shots

So you’ve photographed the pillbox itself. Another thing to consider is recording the surrounding landscape that the pillbox sits in. You may want to take some images from a distance to demonstrate how the pillbox sits in its landscape and to demonstrate any camouflage. This can also be useful for demonstrating how effective camouflage schemes were, and also considering how visible the pillbox itself was from vulnerable points in the landscape or from the perspective of obstacles the pillbox was sited to cover.

Another simple way of recording the pillbox’s landscape context is to take images of the landscape from the perspective of the elevations. Simply put, when you take your elevation shots, turn around and take a photograph facing away from the elevations with loopholes in them. This has added advantages over trying to take photographs out of each loophole. The first being that it can be relatively difficult to get an image taken within the pillbox out of smaller embrasures to focus. Often, the camera has to be placed so close to the embrasure that it does not give an accurate depiction of what the defending soldier’s firing out of the pillbox would have seen. The muzzle of rifles and Light Machine Guns would be pretty much be in-line with the outer face of the pillbox, affording the operator the greatest protection from within the pillbox.

Description:

Location of pillbox from approx. 200m North-West. Image facing South-East. Note effectiveness of vegetation camouflage scheme and the elevated position.

Recording and Presenting Basic Measurements

One thing I realised I forgot to cover earlier is recording dimensions and making sketch plans.

As mentioned in part 3 of this guide, we take measurements in metric (metric is the archaeological standard) but as wartime defences were constructed in imperial measurements, it is a good idea to quote these as well. I find it easier to work in metric in the field, then convert the measurements taken during the field survey into imperial later. It just saves a bit of time on site.

You will need:

  • A copy of the Recording Form, notebook or piece of A4 paper.
  • A 5m handheld tape measure- A 15+ metre long reel tape measure
  • Pens, pencils and a ruler

A sketch plan is a simple drawing of the pillbox, or other structure, in plan (from above) which is annotated with dimensions. You will find a grid within the recording form that can be used for drawing sketch plans. As sketch plans aren’t to scale, they can be created relatively quickly in the field. If measurements are taken properly, a sketch plan can then be reproduced to scale later.

Start your sketch plan by creating a rough drawing of the outline of the pillbox. This doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to represent the pillbox you are recording. You can use a ruler to draw the outline if you want. Be sure to leave yourself plenty of space, as you’ll need to add dimensions to the plan shortly.

Next add a North arrow to show the orientation of the pillbox. At the bottom of the plan, make a note that the plan is not to scale.

As you can see, the basis for our sketch plan is nothing fancy and it doesn’t need to be.

Now, using your tape measures, you simply go around the exterior of the pillbox, taking measurements as you go. You then add these measurements to you sketch plan like this-

Keep on taking measurements until you have measured each face of the pillbox and annotated the sketch. And there you have it, a very simple but also very useful plan of the exterior of the pillbox.

You can use this process to measure the interior and elevations of your pillbox to create a detailed set of measurements that you can use to create detailed plans or even 3D models of your pillbox, like this one-

Yorkshire Infantry Pillbox by ckolonko on Sketchfab

Remember to take triangulations across the length and width of the pillbox so that you can work out the angles of any corners later.You will find a slightly more detailed sketch plan in the finished record, which includes interior measurements. Be aware that the measurements don’t quite add up. This is deliberate to stop anyone simply copying/stealing my actual measurements without doing the work themselves.

Another thing you can do is write a brief description of the dimensions to go into your site description. You will see an example of this in the finished site record below.

Completed Record Example

You head home, proud you’ve done a job well done with recording the pillbox. When you get back you’ll start writing up your notes and putting together a site record to send to your local HER. A niggling thought in the back of your mind tells you ‘well, we were only here for a few hours but it feels like we’ve spent a couple of years recording this pillbox’.

A few days later, you put the finished touches to your site record and send it off to the local HER. The HER Officer sends you a response thanking you for your hard work. They didn’t know there was a lot more to pillboxes than a single sentence.

That’s it, the process of creating a basic site record is done. You can see below our finished record for this fictional pillbox. You can see though, that with a bit of effort and time you can help to demonstrate the significance and local context of a surviving wartime pillbox and at least ensure preservation by record.

You can download the finished record here-

Although this is a very basic record, it includes enough information to ensure preservation by record if the pillbox is lost in the future. The record now includes an adequate description of the structure and its context, along with a photographic record and assessment of its condition at time of survey. This is a vast improvement on the one sentence record for this pillbox that was held by the HER.

What’s Next?

I’m going to condense this guide into a more formal document and will publish this over on the UK Second World War Heritage website.

I also plan to write a quick intro guide to what archaeology is, how this relates to wartime sites and some explanations of what specific archaeological terms mean. ‘Rescue Archaeology’ online isn’t what rescue archaeology is in real life.

Most of my future resources will go out on the UKSWWH website.

Final Words of Advice

A few tips before I go:

Remember, not all concrete is wartime concrete and not everything can be positively identified.

Be objective and don’t try to force every piece of concrete you find into a wartime interpretation.

If you don’t know what something is, then that’s fine. If you’re not sure then you can work on identifying what you’ve found later but be prepared for it not to be a military feature.

Start by assuming that what you can’t identify doesn’t perform a wartime function until you can prove that it does.

Don’t believe everything random people online say. If in doubt, question them. Ask for a source, ideally a primary source for any ‘facts’. There’s a lot of things that have become established as ‘fact’ with no evidence or supporting information to corroborate said ‘facts’.

The Regular Army and The Territorial Army played a much more extensive role within the Home Defences of 1940 and 1941 than the Home Guard. Don’t forget the regulars.

Outro And Something On a Serious Note

And that’s it. The end of the guide. I’ll write some additional snippets of information in the future, but this guide will give you a good starting point to get recording. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and it makes sense.

Hopefully you’ll now see that there’s a lot more to actual pillbox recording than sticking a photo online and saying ‘it’s a pillbox and it is nice’.

Time To Be Serious

I thought this would be a good place to round off this guide by highlighting some of the issues I’ve seen crop up recently in regards to wartime archaeology, recording and preservation.

Most people who know me will know that I’m generally not a serious person, but I do take Second World War defence archaeology very seriously.

I started writing this guide after noticing there wasn’t an easily accessible archaeological recording guide focussed specifically on wartime defences. I’d also noticed that what constitutes recording online and on social media bears little resemblance to archaeological recording practices.

Pillbox ‘recording’ online often runs the risk of having more in common with train spotting than archaeology (I don’t mean that to be negative to the hobby of train spotting, by the way). This is pretty worrying, especially when people believe that taking a photograph and sticking it on Facebook, Flickr or on a forum is helping to ‘record’ and therefore ‘preserve’ wartime defences. It doesn’t. If it did, there would be a lot more pillboxes preserved as listed or scheduled monuments and much more detailed information recorded with Historic Environment Records (HERs), thus informing the planning process.

The situation is further exacerbated by a handful of online forums and social media groups. Most of which rely heavily on such ‘recording’ for content and attracting large numbers of members. Often, because people think they are helping to record and preserve by posting photos to Facebook (and elsewhere), they will strive to get more photos of more pillboxes, visit more sites and try to access structures that aren’t publicly accessible. Although this activity is clearly ‘urbex’, it is often referred to fancifully as ‘pillbox hunting’. This eventually turns into a need for more social media likes, more attention, and attaining the hallowed status of ‘pillbox spotting expert’. This behaviour often goes hand in hand with such groups encouraging and condoning bad practice, turning a blind eye to heritage crime (often applauding clear cases of unauthorised vegetation clearance and illegal excavation), allowing plagiarism and copyright infringement, not being transparent about what constitutes recording, not encouraging recording of sites directly with HERs or informing people about the key role HERs play in recording/preservation, and misinforming members of the public about how to preserve sites; this is often justified by those involved because it is being done in the belief that this is ‘recording’ and ‘documenting’ surviving sites and is somehow leading to preservation. As such groups don’t have any input into the relevant HERs or planning process, this clearly isn’t the case. And it needs to be reiterated that a single sentence and photograph doesn’t constitute a record. Also, as the focus is always on finding things, and not understanding what has been found or appreciating its significance, we now see any old lump of concrete being interpreted as wartime. As new sites become more scarce, the need to find something unrecorded, increases, which is now leading to things that have no definite wartime or military function being misidentified. Sometimes a ‘new’ site is referred to as ‘not listed’. This is yet another problem, as listing is a specific form of statutory protection for a structure. Using the term ‘listed’ to refer to sites known online gives the impression that sites then receive protected status if they are ‘recorded’ online. They don’t and this is also likely to be fuelling the ‘they’re all listed’ myth that is commonplace online.

Unfortunately, such groups are the first place people with a genuine interest and enthusiasm end up when they start looking at wartime sites. Due to the lack of clear good practice guidelines, many newcomers then pick up bad habits and/or fall for uninformed advice of the numerous self-appointed ‘experts’ that inhabit such groups. Just because someone has looked at and photographed a lot of pillboxes, it doesn’t mean they can tell you anything useful about them such as their landscape context, form, function, when they were built, and who garrisoned them (except something about the Home Guard). Often they can only tell you where a certain pillbox is and its ‘type’. Looking at lots of pillboxes certainly doesn’t indicate someone has a working knowledge of current heritage legislation or basic archaeological recording standards. Same can be said for the number of members in a group or where a group pops up on a Google search. More members does not equal better quality or experience and neither does appearing at the top of a Google search.

Most group rules or good practice disclaimers found on social media groups are also just in place to distance the admins and coordinators from any blame or responsibility when a member gets caught doing something they shouldn’t. It’s easy for an admin or coordinator to say the group doesn’t condone tresspass and unauthorised vegetation clearance/excavation, but that is meaningless if they allow examples to be posted, don’t challenge such behaviours, and allow members to condone such bad practice and illegal activities.

Unfortunately, we are now seeing the result of well over 10 years of complacency, poor/non-existent guidance, promotion of bad practice, poor recording and inaction by such social media groups and their audiences. Such inaction and inexperience is the biggest contributing factor to the loss of surviving wartime defences. This largely coincides with a pervading lack of understanding of the historical background, context, use, and significance of surviving wartime defences. We still know next to nothing about these defences and it mainly comes down to people not being encouraged to undertake research, other than quoting from a few books and regurgitating myths that have now become established as ‘fact’.

There are only a handful of experienced specialists who are trying to get things back on track and fill the vacuum left by the seminal archaeology projects that ended in the early 2000s. Turning around the ingrained attitudes of many of those with a passing interest is going to take a long time, all the while more defences will either remain vulnerable or be lost.

The only way things are going to change is if more people make contact with their local Historic Environment Record and speak up for surviving wartime sites in their local area through official channels; effectively engaging with heritage organisations, getting involved in the planning process and advocating for local sites. Detailed recording is needed more than ever, as a single sentence and photo does not ensure preservation by record or show significance. Complaining into the echo chamber of social media is completely pointless, especially when the same effort could go into engaging in a positive manner.

Over the last year or so, we have seen an increasingly common trend of people trying to save a site or structure when planning agreements are already in place and development is underway. Again, this doesn’t work and in the vast majority of cases never will. It doesn’t matter how many petitions are started, how many comments are written online blaming the local council/Historic England/English Heritage/conspiracy theories of councillors taking back handers or ‘lefties’ deleting history by letting things be demolised, or how many angry letters are written to the local newspaper. Such efforts are only a token gesture and are symptomatic of the culture of sitting back and expecting someone else to do something that is now rife online.

More worrying is the development of anti-heritage body/professional rhetoric, often in-line with tropes of ‘deleting our heritage/history’ or ‘actively destroying sites rather than preserving them’; such tropes which are somewhat ironically grounded in long standing and current far-right ideology. These attitudes and tropes act as cover for the groups that have sat back and done nothing for well over a decade. Trying to put the blame on the very organisations that are responsible for preservation is stupid and counter-productive, especially when groups popularising and acting as a platform for anti-heritage organisation rhetoric claim to be committed to preservation. You can’t preserve anything if you don’t work with the very heritage bodies that ensure preservation! Such attitudes severely impact preservation by actively stopping people from engaging with the processes of preservation and recording. Further to this, these amateur online groups do not have any official responsibility for preservation in any way. By acting as a platform for anti-heritage body/professional rhetoric they are actively contributing to and ensuring the continued loss of sites we see today. It’s almost as if some of the individuals active on such groups revel in the destruction of wartime sites, as it provides them with purpose, attention and backs up their viewpoint. These same individuals seem to spend more time looking at sites under demolition than they do recording such sites when they weren’t being destroyed; further exacerbating the problem. The more cynical side of me wonders if this is deliberate?

To clarify, nothing is going to stop development once it’s underway. It is too late. Action can only be effective if it is taken before the planning agreements are in place.

And by change I mean proper change, not just coming up with new excuses to try and get out of doing things properly. One excuse that started to appear recently is the allusion that because individuals undertaking pillbox related activities are enthusiasts/volunteers and not archaeologists, they don’t/shouldn’t have to undertake such work to archaeological standards. Let’s use intrusive investigation (digging up) of a wartime pillbox as an example. As an aside, the digging up of pillboxes is often referred to as ‘rescue archaeology’ by the same enthusiasts doing the digging (reminds me a bit of cats in boxes). This excuse is often followed by a mention that said enthusiasts aren’t getting paid/making money from the digging (probably meant as a slight to archaeologists, insinuating they are ‘in it for the money’). I don’t get paid to write this guide, or any of the content on this website and never have done. The thing is though, that there are many amateur archaeologists, enthusiasts and volunteers out there that do great work to professional or recognised standards, who are keen to learn and work ethically. Why not just improve and learn to do things properly instead of making up an excuse? If excavation by enthusiasts isn’t archaeology, what is it they are doing? And why are such cases of pillbox digging clearly emulating archaeological excavation? This may be an excuse we are going to see used more in the future, but I sincerely hope not.

This excuse has the potential to cause serious damage, especially if it is used as justification to undertake uncoordinated and unauthorised excavation with no final report outlining the findings of the investigation. Even if you don’t consider digging up pillboxes to be archaeology, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to adhere to any archaeological recording standards, work safely, get permission and insurance, work with the landowner and heritage/environment agencies, write up and publish site/excavation reports, send information to the local HER, or obey the law. Excavation is a destructive process that can’t be repeated. Simply put, you can’t just put everything back and start again if something goes wrong. Proper recording is vitally important to telling the story of a site or structure. If artefacts, or physical features, and their contexts are not recorded before they are removed or destroyed, then the story they tell is lost forever and can never be told.

Thankfully, there are people out there that have taken it upon themselves to record sites with their local Historic Environment Record after reading this guide. I’m very thankful to anyone who has read through this guide and taken the positive step of adding information to their local Historic Environment Record. It makes this all worth it and will help make a difference in the future.

Further Reading

BAJR Guide- Digital Photography in Archaeology: A Guide

BAJR Guide- Photography for Archaeologists Part I : Site specific record

SRP Site Recording Manual


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

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